Town residents to mull changing government format

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Griswold - posted Tue., Feb. 26, 2013
Griswold's board of selectmen form of government will be up for discussion at a special board meeting to consider adopting a town council and town manager format. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Griswold's board of selectmen form of government will be up for discussion at a special board meeting to consider adopting a town council and town manager format. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Townspeople may have a chance to consider altering the current Board of Selectmen form of government and have a town council and town manager instead. First Selectman Philip Anthony said that he plans to bring the subject up at a special Board of Selectmen meeting next week. The board will subsequently decide whether its wishes to pursue the matter with a public hearing, town meeting and ultimately a referendum.

“I feel that I’ve got on the board the support to move it forward,” said Anthony. The final decision, though, is “up to the residents themselves, the voters. If they decide that’s the way they want to go, I’m all for it.” He said input from a number of local residents and business owners prompted him to broach the subject, do some research and present his findings to the other selectmen for consideration.

If the process continues, voters would have the chance to vote to approve a town charter as well as the hiring of a town manager, who would not be elected but appointed by the town council based on governmental experience and education.

The selectmen form of government dates back to New England’s early history, said Jonathan Cesolini, the vice-chairman of the Killingly Town Council. But Killingly has operated with a town manager and town council since the early 1970s, he said. The system’s biggest benefit – that the town’s administrator is not elected by the voters – is also its major disadvantage, Cesolini said. “The position of town manager and the CEO of the town makes [town managers] apolitical. They don’t have to run for office, they answer to the town council. It keeps them out of the Democratic and Republican squabbling that can go on.”

On the downside, however, the office’s non-elective status can mean a downgrade in prestige on the larger political stage, said Cesolini. “I have heard from Killingly Democrats and Republicans that when the chairman of the town council goes to Hartford, they’re not given the same respect as the mayor or a first selectman,” he said. In Northeast Council of Government meetings, only the town’s chief elected official – meaning the town council chairman – is able to vote, he said. He compared the relationship of town manager and town council chairman to that of the U.S. president and speaker of the House. The speaker of the House, he said, “may be respected, but [the office] doesn’t have the same respect as the office of president.”

Killingly Town Manager Bruce Benway said that as a non-elected official, he has the freedom to cobble together elements from both sides of an issue to create a compromise. “I administer. My role leading up to adoption of policies is merely to advise,” he said. The roles and responsibilities of a town manager are based on the town’s individual charter and thus vary widely from town to town, he said.

Cesolini said that Griswold voters should consider several questions if the matter comes to a referendum. “Is the government big enough to need [a town manager] to run on a day-to-day basis for that salary?” In Killingly’s case, the answer was yes, he said.

Benway, who has held the Killingly office since 2004 and has 35 years’ experience as manager of several towns, currently earns $118,000 a year. But, Cesolini noted, that does not include health benefits or the long-term costs of a pension that will continue after his tenure ends. Those costs must be factored into the decision to approve hiring a town manager, he said.

Killingly has a nine-member town council, but Cesolini said that Griswold will need to determine for itself an ideal number of council members. Voters must also decide whether or not to divide the town into districts for council elections, as Killingly does. Another question is whether the town council chairman will be voted on by the council body or whether the highest vote-getter on the ballot will automatically win the post.

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